14/03/2012 - 11:21

Independents get strong political support

14/03/2012 - 11:21


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Politicians know where the power lies when it comes to education – with the parents.

Politicians know where the power lies when it comes to education – with the parents.

IN a somewhat nostalgic moment I recently watched the 1989 movie ‘Dead Poets Society’, in which Robin Williams plays an inspirational English teacher who is crushed by the stifling hand of the archaic management at his school and the conservatism of the parents.

In summary, the innovative teaching methods of the fictitious Welton Academy’s new English teacher, Williams’ character John Keating, upset the status quo of this school which, in 1959, took pride in turning out students prepped for the Ivy League, the traditional and most prestigious universities in the US.

Ultimately, one student’s dalliance with Keating’s inspiration results in conflict with his parents, which leads him to suicide. The teacher, not the system or the parents, is blamed.

It led me to consider a conversation I had not long ago regarding just who is the customer when it comes to the school system. 

The person I was discussing this with was involved in private education at board level and firmly believed the customer, and therefore the key constituent of the school’s governance focus, was the student. 

I must admit, I disagreed. In my view, there may be an element of truth in that in the state-school system where public funding (and laws requiring school attendance) is firmly focused on ensuring the individual students have the best education opportunities possible, despite their parents’ circumstances or, occasionally, opposition. I would nevertheless argue that a school’s key customers are parents, even if they act as a collective rather than the individual.

The private school system offers more immediate clarity in this debate. While a private school, like a state school, clearly owes a duty of care to the student, its customer is definitely the parent. The parent, for whatever reason, has chosen that school and the management had to be focused on delivering on their expectations, which may or may not be entirely in the best interests of the child when taken from that perspective.

Parents send their children to private schools for all manner of reasons. The best classroom teaching is not always the primary differential between private and public education. Strong alternative reasons may be religion, gender, sport, tradition, prestige, discipline or infrastructure among a whole host of choices. This may or may not improve the educational outcomes of the child involved.   

Of course, parents don’t exclusively fund private sector education and, therefore, there is a limit to the parents’ ability to have 100 per cent control. The state, in the interest of the student, stipulates certain education standards that ensure not only a school receives funding, but that it may be licensed to operate at all.

Ultimately, then, the state is a key stakeholder in both the private and public sector. 

In a democracy, that means voters decide. In my opinion, few voters have the ballot box impact of parents who – due to both the cost and responsibility of raising children – tend to have honed their interest in broader politics and policy to a greater degree than those who haven’t had kids.

It is also a numbers game. In our ageing society, most people who vote are parents, even if they’ve become grandparents. And, of course, even younger people are capable of looking ahead to when they become parents and what that might mean. 

Hence, the political focus on ‘working families’ (and versions of it), which I read as ‘parents’. Even political messages that don’t directly use this language attempt to pull the parental heartstrings with talk of ‘future generations’ and ‘leaving something for your children or grandchildren’.

So when it comes to education, no matter whether it is private or public, it is ultimately parents who are the key customers, even if it is via the ballot box, and even if a minority of individual parents could not care less.

That is why the rise of the independent public school is such a phenomenon with significant political backing.

This week’s decision to introduce the independent public school system by the NSW state government, following in the footsteps of Victoria and the sector’s leader in this instance, Western Australia, is not just a conservative party agenda. The federal government is also completely in line with this under its Empowering Local Schools policy.

What is so interesting about all this is the opposition of the teachers’ unions. 

“Schools are being seduced with moves towards local autonomy which are more about budget cuts than student outcomes,” goes the introduction to Australian Education Union president Angelo Gavrielatos’ views in an article published in the Australian Educator’s 2011 spring edition.

It must be frustrating for a union such as the AEU to be overlooked in the policy spectrum when so many other unions with equally vested interests have had so much success at national level. Clearly the teachers have no clout or, more likely, this is one area where even a union-centric government like Julia Gillard’s can’t afford to ignore a far more powerful vested interest – parents.

Parents are often viewed as ignorant when it comes to education but the truth is that it doesn’t take long to become reacquainted with a system that they left as bubbly teenagers just on the cusp of being eligible to vote. A few years of raising babies, sending kids to pre-school and the early years of primary school gives most parents a reasonable education in education.

I have been privileged to be able to send my children to a magnificent state primary school. If I have learned anything, it is the impact of good teachers on my children’s interest in learning. Some are clearly inspirational professionals and I know my kids will remember them for their entire lives.

But such teachers are becoming rarer as the profession’s attraction to younger people dwindles.

A push for smaller class sizes, a policy which, over 30 years or more has resulted in the need for nearly twice as many teachers per capita, has done little to improve things. The need for more teachers has simply lowered the standards. 

International comparisons are now proving that Australia is slipping and parents are looking for answers. Giving experienced educators such as principals and local communities (read parents) more control via independent public schools is seen as one way of changing the one-size-fits-all approach that hasn’t worked.

The WA State School Teachers Union opposes this policy but state Labor is less clear. It has criticised the WA implementation but I can’t see an outright debunking of the concept. In fact, I spoke to one Labor MLA recently who expressed frustration at a local school missing out on independent status.

Politicians know where the power lies in this issue. 

• mark.pownall@wabn.com.au



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